Blessed Be the Lord: A Commentary on the Benedictus

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The Daily Office of the Anglican tradition is known for many things. It has elements of rhythmic consistency and lines of beautiful prose. Part of this extraordinary heritage is the use of canticles/songs. These are either said or chanted at different times in Morning and Evening Prayer; many of them come from the very words of Scripture itself. Christians have used them in worship since the earliest recorded periods.

One such canticle is commonly called the Benedictus, often said in Morning Prayer. The name comes from the first word of the song in Latin and is found in Luke 168-79 on the mouth of Zechariah. As the father of John the Baptist, he spoke by the Spirit’s utterance in a way that has captured the attention of believers for the last two millennia. His words, laced with Old Testament references recast in light of the Messiah, are a fitting way to begin each day.

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(Note that the following divisions of the Benedictus are my own and do not reflect any exegetical insight. I have chosen them merely to make the text devotional and digestible.)

Part 1

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.

Zechariah’s prayer quickly reminds us that the Christian faith does not arise de novo. We rest on the shoulders of spiritual giants: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Joshua, to name but a few. We have a history as believers that transcends physicality. Putting this prayer in the Daily Office puts it into our lips: we sing a song about how God has saved his people, and that people is us. 

Notice how impossible this song is to understand without our Old Testament. What is Israel? Who is this God? What is he like? Who are his people? Who is David? What is his house? All of these questions have answers, and those answers assume a context that is not provided in any other place than the books of Moses and the Prophets. To divorce the Christian faith from the first half of the Bible is an old heresy: Marcion, the arch-heretic, was infamous for how he removed any reference to this part of Scripture from the New Testament, making mincemeat out of the Gospels and turning the God of Abraham into a monster of hell. Including this song in the Daily Office safeguards us against this mindset.

Part 2

Through his holy prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

The allusions to the Old Testament are as replete here as in the previous stanza; indeed, the Benedictus now heightens them. We see the Messiah’s birth fulfilling the great covenant promises to the patriarchs. As God promised that Abraham would have his seed bless the earth, that Isaac would have a Land, and promised Jacob that Shiloh would come, so Christ appears on the scene. Indeed, all of these promises stand against the backdrop of the first of the great patriarchs. We see the story of Christ as the second act of a play that began with Father Abraham. We now see those magnificent promises realized in Act 3, the Church, where we currently each play our own role. 

As these promises are heightened, however, they are also transformed, or rather transposed. Zecharaiah speaks by the Holy Spirit that Christ would “save us from our enemies.” He says that his son, John, would prepare the way for the Great Warrior at the end of time, who would come in the power of the Most High and give us full and final freedom to worship God. Zechariah confesses that this will happen in the ministry of Christ, a ministry that did not come with the sword. We now see the ultimate reality clothed in the words: Jesus came and defeated the true enemy, the final Goliath, the unconquerable giant: Satan, sin, and death. He set us free from the ultimate Pharaoh and leads us daily further into the true Promised Land.

Part 3

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The climax of the Benedictus emerges here. Zechariah turns his prophetic gaze to his own son, John. He knows that this boy will follow in the Spirit of Elijah. He will fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: a highway will be made in the desert for the New King to travel through. There shall be an access ramp for all who want to seek forgiveness for their sins and escape their darkness. Light shall spring forth. We shall no more be children of the darkness but shall have the dayspring rise in our hearts. We will be peacemakers, true sons and daughters of our Father in Heaven.

Zechariah’s conclusion encapsulates the Gospel message. In this current age, it no longer belongs to the Jewish people alone: the message of God goes to every nation as a message of victory. All races, peoples, and nations are called to the table of the great King, no matter the darkness that holds them back. We long for the day when those nations shall bow before this Christ, seeing his kingdom of peace spread to the four corners of the world. In that hope, we rightly say, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”


Image: Detail of Zechariah Writes Down the Name of His Son by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1490). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Author

James Hodges

James Hodges, of Ridgeway, VA, is a Kindergarten Teacher in the local public school system and teaches the Junior Church in his local congregation. He is husband to Anna and father to Lilabet.

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